There may be no way to completely protect Europe from future terrorist attacks, especially those carried out by lone wolf terrorists. But better tactical and information coordination between security services would have a real impact in the fight against terror.
Flowers are seen attached to a fence to remember the victims of the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice in front of the French embassy in Rome, July 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters
On July 14, as people gathered to celebrate Bastille Day and watch the fireworks along the seafront in Nice, a 31-year-old French citizen of Tunisian origins drove a truck into the crowd before plowing into people for around two kilometers (1.2 miles). As a result, at least 84 people were killed and over one hundred injured. The world-famous French Riviera resort town was shaken, as were international observers trying to make sense of such a horrible attack and the best possible way to confront Islamic terrorism.
The timing and location for the terror attack was chosen perfectly, and French police and security services could hardly be blamed, especially given the unconventional nature of the attack. The tactics used by the terrorist in Nice make it impossible to completely prevent such attacks in the future. That, unfortunately, means that similar attacks are very likely to happen again.
What makes the attack all the more troubling is that it seemingly came out of nowhere. The end of May and the first half of the summer went smoothly in terms of security. All French police and security services were concentrated on the European Football Championship, making maximum efforts to avoid any security breach. They succeeded - the major football event of the year was a success. In fact, it is quite natural that after such an event, the security services and the police may have let their guard down and the terrorist made his move exactly at this very moment.
The terrorist’s choice of the place for attack is not a coincidence. Cote d’Azur is traditionally a tourist destination visited by vast numbers of foreigners. On one hand, Nice is a very diverse city where it is quite easy to vanish into the crowd. On the other hand, the previous prosperity and safety of the city were based on the absence of any Arabic neighborhoods, which are usually a big headache for French police.
However, just 200 kilometers (117 miles) away, there is the city of Marseille, which has one of the largest communities of Middle East and North Africa immigrants in Western Europe. Despite that fact, no one thought of a possible terror attack in Nice.
Currently it is conjectured that the terrorist was a “lone wolf” acting alone to carry out the attack. The French police was actually familiar with the perpetrator because of his criminal background. But he was never on the French security services’ radar. However, it is highly possible that during the investigation, the security services will discover that such information was available to them. Given that he was working alone, it will be much harder to track his contacts and connections than if he was part of a group conducting the attack.
It appears that the masterminds behind the attack learned the lessons of the Paris attacks in November 2015. At that time, French and Belgium security services managed to detain and terminate all suspected organizers of that terror attack. All that was possible thanks to the meticulous work of French and Belgium policemen, who scrupulously worked through all contacts of the terrorist who was killed during the November attacks in Paris. However, it did not protect Europe from a new wave of attacks in Brussels and now in Nice.
The explanation for this is simple: the terrorist cells of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and other radical Islamists are quite self-sufficient and are not linked to each other on the territory of the EU. Moreover, it is clear that their supervisors in the Middle East do not exercise strict control over them, not even knowing the details of upcoming terror attacks. The elimination of one terrorist cell does not threaten the others.
The arrested extremists simply do not know their associates that operate in a neighboring region. If it is proven that the perpetrator of the attack, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had never fallen into the field of view of the special services, it might be argued that the militants aim to attract into their ranks those individuals who have never attracted the attention of the authorities as radical Islamists.
Drawing connections between these individuals will be significantly harder. It is, however, problematic to train a person having no experience. Shooting from a truck while simultaneously driving it requires skills that are not that easy to acquire, even for this terrorist, who actually turned out to be a truck driver.
Here, the French police seem to have made a mistake: they either missed his trip from France to ISIS-controlled territories, or the lengthy process of his training in Europe itself. Even if one considers an unlikely scenario in which the French Tunisian was a lone wolf like the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik in 2011, his actions, from the purchase of a gun to a truck trip to the center of a busy town celebrating a public holiday, should have drawn the attention of the authorities.
It is clear that now the investigation will examine who was behind Bouhlel and provided him with weapons, how he prepared for the attack and what was the level of his connection with radical Islamists. It is highly likely that it turns out that this time the extremists acted with a greater attention to secrecy than during the attacks in Paris and the search for the organizers of the attacks will become a long, protracted process.
Also read: Russia Direct Report "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism"
Unfortunately, the only effective preventive mechanism against such terror attacks are undesirable from the perspective of any free, democratic society - total vehicle inspections, a weapon sales ban, an increase in visible police patrols that could effectively react to any threat, and an introduction of inspections in all public places. But all these are only “defense” barriers that might be circumvented by terrorists with the right training.
Another stage of the anti-terror fight – which might be almost totally useless against real lone wolf terrorists – would be the analysis of trips, conversations and chats of suspicious individuals and meticulous operative work that entails infiltration of the cells of radical Islamists and spying on their leaders.
However, taking into account the openness of European borders and current legislative framework for migration, such actions are productive only when EU special services are working as one mechanism. Otherwise, a terrorist constantly moving from, say, France to Belgium and then to Germany, Denmark and Sweden will be simply impossible to track. Currently, the initiatives put forward by a number of European policymakers to create a united European special service still have no real results.
Unfortunately, it is now evident that the attacks on Europe that are influenced or directed by radical Islamists will continue. At the same time, ISIS and its allies will be able to change their tactics and outmaneuver any special services that are not able to coordinate their actions and cooperate effectively. This cooperation is the key to dealing with terrorism.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.